Margery Kempe’s book is the first autobiography written in English. However, like St. Augustine’s Confessions, it’s more about her spiritual and mental struggles than it is about the actual details of her life. Which firmly puts it into the confessional literature category for me.
There is ample evidence her first pregnancy left her with postpartum depression, at the very least. Scholars often debate her sanity and some have posited she had psychosis. If she wasn’t completely sane, then she makes a good show of sanity, for she could distinguish between periods of mental calm and others of mental anguish.
Her book is worth reading, even if the overly religious flourishes are tiresome after a while. Like with George MacDonald, if you sift through the religious euphemisms, there is genuine treasure to be had here. Even in the 21st century.
If Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is his pep talk to himself to keep calm, then Margery Kempe’s book is a pep talk for all of us in accepting our negative experiences.
Coping with Mental Illness
And after she had conceived, she was labored with great attacks of illness until the child was born, and then, what for the labor she had in childing and for the sickness going before, she despaired of her life, thinking she might not live.The Book of Margery Kemp
Lynn Staley, translator
Saying you hear voices, and have spells of mental illness, was not a straightforward thing to admit back then. Even if she couches it in terms of religious experiences. People still rejected her for it then and thought she was being too dramatic.
Margery claims her former friends and social circle pulled away from her. But how many of us who have depression have the same thing happen? One really bad episode, and suddenly we’re social pariahs. Sometimes, even when family is involved.
What does Margery do? It turns out she does exactly what most of us who have depression do during an episode. She retreats into herself to find comfort, talks about her troubles, and takes refuge in her “visions.”
If we were to interpret this as a modern coping mechanism, this means practicing meditation, taking a break from social media, spending some time alone to re-center ourselves, and getting therapy.
Healing Religious Trauma
Her confessor was a little too hasty and began sharply to reprove her before she had fully said her intent, and so she would no more say for aught he might do. And anon, for the dread she had of damnation on the one side, and his sharp reproving on that other side, this creature went out of her mind and was wonderfully vexed and labored with spirits for half a year, eight weeks, and some odd days.The Book of Margery Kempe
Lynn Staley, translator
Margery went to a priest for help at some point, either during or after her first pregnancy. The visit results in a psychotic break. Our first reaction is that the priest is at fault. This is only partially true. In defense of the priest, women’s health as a concept didn’t exist back then. Neither was there anything for psychological illness.
Margery’s description of what she experiences during her psychotic break would move anyone to pity. For women who have suffered in that way, it’s enough to move you to tears. She had no professional help and no treatment. Her husband, by her own account, at least cared for her enough to know she was telling the truth when she was all better. The experience would lead her to keep more and more refuge in religious occupation throughout the rest of her life.
Call that Stockholm Syndrome, if you will, but Margery had no other recourse. Psychology didn’t exist then. Say what you will about the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, but at least she found meaning in her sufferings through religious devotion. If that brought her an ounce of peace, then so be it.
She didn’t have a psychologist to talk to, but she had priests, and she went to them frequently with her “sins” after her psychotic break. It’s a poor substitute for professional therapy, but at least she talked to someone about what she saw as her problems.
Forsaking religion wasn’t an option for her. So she delved more deeply into meditation and contemplation. She focused on more positive things and learned to cope with the negatives as best she could.
There is more than one way of handling religious trauma. The exvangelical movement and those who are “deconstructing” their religion are facing the same problem. Anyone who leaves the religious tradition of their childhood faces the same problem.
Margery, of course, ends up returning to the same religion, but she understands it differently from before. Before, she was a Lollard—an early form of Protestantism. After, she was mystically Roman Catholic. If breaking with your own religious tradition is not an option, then let her comfort you. She found a balance which worked for her and she tried to put her suffering in a positive light.
May we all do the same.
We fight against negative experiences when they happen, especially if it triggers a trauma response or if the event itself was traumatic. We may deny anything has happened or we may push our emotions deep down and try to carry on without processing what has happened.
There is a part of us which doesn’t want to believe betrayal and hurt are possible. If we’re striving for a better world, then should our suffering decrease? Events like September 11, the Great Recession, the COVID pandemic, and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine don’t seem possible in global society. Yet, they do.
Margery Kempe at least tells us that when these events happen, we have to frame our understanding in terms we both understand and accept. For her, it was easier to understand the suffering in her life as a sort of purification process to get closer to God. For us, this may look vastly different, whether that is to take up yoga, practice daily meditation, speak affirmations, change religious affiliation, forsake religion altogether, or to get therapy.
The key, however, is to accept and acknowledge something happened, as painful as the recollection may be. Denial doesn’t do anyone any good.
It only keeps you from healing and finding a way of living you can bear.
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